We all know that the world is struggling to cope with an unprecedented public health crisis. We also know (but might have temporarily forgotten) that people are amazing, that we are remarkably adaptable, and that incredible innovations emerge from the very toughest of times.
So whilst we at Wasafiri acknowledge the breathtaking scale of uncertainty and disruption at the present time, as well as the very real and painful reality it will bring to many of us, we also want to ask; so what can I do about it?
The short answer is that most of us can’t do anything about Covid-19. The reality is that it isn’t the virus that is going to do most of the damage. It’s the fallout; the second and third order impacts on social and economic stability that we’re most worried about.
But here’s where we CAN do something – we can seek out all sorts of opportunities for building the collective and adaptive capacity of our organisations, institutions and communities.
Global leadership is falling short. We shouldn’t wait.
It’s clear to all of us that the response, both to the present public health emergency, as well as for the looming secondary impacts, will require collective leadership and action on a vast scale. However it’s not enough to leave it to Chief Executives/Scientists or Heads of State or the World Health Organisation. Our leaders are failing us at precisely the time we need them. Just two months ago the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report warned us that fraying global alliances and under-resourced multilateral systems were leaving us short of ammunition to mount a coordinated response. Similar alarm bells were rang by Gordon Brown, UK’s Prime Minister during the 2008 financial crisis, who last week called out populist nationalism and isolationism as hampering efforts to find global solutions to a global problem.
But whilst global leadership is falling short, there remains an army of institutions, companies, communities and organisations capable of providing the action we need. So, in a time of perilous uncertainty and turbulence, what should we do?
Learning lessons the hard way
Below we offer five lessons to help ordinary people wrestling with tough choices to figure out ‘What next?’. We’ve learned these the hard way, from living and working in the trenches of tough problems such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, tackling violent extremism in East Africa, training leaders in the UK’s National Health Service, and from helping the very poorest people move out of poverty in Kenya.
In our view, the kind of action that is needed is the kind which forges new alliances, leverages resources, unites efforts, unlocks new approaches and focusses energies where they are best placed. This is the kind of action that must extend horizontally, spanning sectors, ideologies and parties, and it’s also the kind of action that must cascade vertically, unifying efforts from the regional to the national and local.
We know that this is more easily said than done. However history also tells us it’s possible. (Just pause to reflect on the messy but mostly effective responses to Ebola, SARS, HIV or efforts to counter threats of violent extremism, recover from world wars, or build a global movement to tackle climate change.)
So here are five lessons to strengthen collective and adaptive responses
Lesson 1: Get Organised.
We can’t do this alone. Change has to be collective. Build coalitions, coordinate efforts, and secure commitment, build momentum. Five days ago, the World Economic Forum launched a COVID action platform to mobilise stakeholders to protect lives and livelihoods. Leaders across sectors need to rally behind platforms such as this, or if they don’t exist, build them. No single person or institution has the power to tackle this alone – so ask yourself “Who do I need to build alliances with? Who can we help?”
Lesson 2: Set the Direction.
In times of great turbulence we all need to know where we are heading next. So invest in establishing shared goals and common agendas. Find ways of leveraging mutual interests, those things that bind us together and build the bridges needed to combine efforts and mobilise resources. The European Union for example, is offering $164m in a global call for applications to unlock innovative solutions to tackle coronavirus. In doing so, it is shaping the agenda by harnessing the energy of startups and the power of tech. Bravo!
Lesson 3: Make it Matter.
Get in front of the narrative, connect to the realities of people’s lives and concerns. Build a compelling, optimistic case for working together through shared struggles and volatile times. This recent letter is a great example – in a highly unusual move, the major supermarkets in the UK hastily forged a new coalition to plead for calm in response to outbreaks of panic buying. Local support groups are already springing up around the country to help provide basic groceries for the needy. We need more!
Lesson 4: Change the incentives.
Make change make sense for the majority. Build the structures and test nudges that incentivise and support new behaviours and ways of operating. Two weeks ago many of us couldn’t imagine saying ‘Let’s have that very important meeting virtually rather than face to face’. Now the real question is ‘Which platform do we use?’. Who isn’t now washing their hands a dozen times a day (and if its you, you should!). Our point is; explore and experiment with ways in which the everyday choices we all make might be better harnessed, aligned or leveraged for the fight ahead of us.
Lesson 5: Learn as you go.
Build shared understanding, make data available, call out fake news and false information, prototype, test and adapt. Arm your people with better knowledge to enable better, swifter decision making. For instance, the Harvard Business Review sets out a range of examples in which businesses are moving quickly to understand the risks facing their supply chains, and offers practical approaches to managing sourcing risks more effectively.
In times of such extraordinary change, when reality is stumbling and shifting before our very eyes, the approaches we normally take – of predicting, planning and executing – simply won’t work. Now is the moment to let them go (beware, they won’t go easily!). Instead, we encourage you to take a deep breath and bravely step forth… sensing, probing, trying and failing, learning, adapting and bringing others along as you go. And as you forge new paths, you will release the magic and the potential of building the collective, adaptive capacity that all of us need… to respond to anything that comes.
We shall make the path as we walk together. Onward!